THE CARNIVORE KARMA

Many American and British people are repulsed by the idea that people in China, Korea or other parts of the world eat dogs. The practice is called a barbaric habit and uncivilised. Horse meat is consumed in France, Belgium, Hungary as well as in Mongolia and Japan. The English speaking world is horrified – these are our pets!

In 2013 when horse meat was found in supermarket beef patties there was outrage. In some cases, the meat patties were 100% horse meat.[1] The legal issue was that it illustrated the difficulty involved in tracing the origin of any meat product. There was no health concern, the horse meat would have actually been healthier than beef from a standard nutritional point of view. The public concern was that they were HORSES!

We domesticate cats and dogs to provide amusement and companionship. Foxes, minks, rabbits and chinchilla are raised so that we can skin them and use their fur. We would not eat a fox we would only wear it, we have decided that some animals are off limits for eating and others are OK.

Most people would agree that the killing of wild, rare animals is wrong. It is not wrong to put them in cages with concrete floors, behind bars or in confined spaces. Putting them in a zoo is OK, it’s educational. African elephants in the wild may require up to 2.7 million acres as a ‘home range’, this is a healthy habitat.[2] A captive elephant in a zoo may be given 2 or 3 acres if lucky. This would be like letting you live in your bedroom closet for the rest of your life. So what about the animals we raise in order to eat?

Science has acknowledged that meat and dairy are unnecessary and indeed damaging to good health. Our only rationale for eating these foods is pleasure. Our taste for fat and blood drives our desire.  We are killing 56 billion land animals[3] each year (estimated to double by 2050) to feed this craving. The number of aquatic creatures killed defies counting and can only be measured by tonnage, but a conservative estimate is well over 100 billion sea creatures. We might imagine that with increased awareness about both the health and environmental consequences of this slaughter we would stop, but we don’t. We might imagine that we would never kill without a valid reason, and yet we do. What stops us?

I have taught and offered health counselling in over twenty ‘developed’ countries.  When I ask people to describe their diets, they commonly respond “I eat a traditional diet”. All their imagined ‘traditional’ diets include meat and/or dairy foods. They are seen to be an important part of the social fabric. Celebrations and holidays are routinely associated with eating animals.

carnavore-karmaAmericans fire up the grill on the Fourth of July and eat hamburgers, a food that would be very alien to the Founding Fathers. In Ireland, Easter somehow requires a baked ham or lamb. Every year the President of the United States ‘pardons’ an individual turkey brought to the White House by the National Turkey Foundation. (No one has yet identified the specific crime the turkey is being pardoned for.)  The turkey is saved to live another day while its brothers and sisters are in the oven. Forty-six million turkeys are eaten every Thanksgiving in America. Tradition?

As with any habit, tradition should be assessed as either improving or diminishing the quality of individual and social life. Some traditions fill an important need and are worth retaining, others certainly outlive their use, or may simply be based on ignorance. It doesn’t make sense to retain a tradition through misplaced nostalgia. We can love our grandparents and still leave many of their prejudices and beliefs in the past.

Karma is subtle. There is perhaps no single act that more clearly illustrates our distance from nature than killing in order to enjoy specific foods. When we do that we put ourselves outside the vibrant community of life that surrounds us. We cannot pretend that our food choices are simply a personal matter any more than it is a personal issue if we dump garbage in the local well.

 

“Each meal has very real effects on the lives of people around the world, on the environment, biodiversity and the climate that are not taken into account when tucking into a piece of meat”[4].

 

When we ignore the laws of nature and moral considerations, the results are disastrous. Some of the results are very direct and concrete and some are more distantly linked, more abstract.  I am not talking about angry spirits here, only karma.

When we force chickens, cattle and pigs into cramped and crowded quarters, they breed new strains of viruses that jump species. Viruses do not simply drop from the sky; they require an environment that suits their needs. Bird flu (avian flu) breeds in the unhealthy, overpopulated environment of factory farms[5]. Bird flu is lethal, and easily jumps species. Two of every three people it infects die[6].  These diseases are a direct result of our abuse of animals.

Infectious diseases that start in animals and can be naturally transmitted to humans are called zoonosis. It is estimated that 61% of all known pathogens that infect humans are zoonosis’, including many serious diseases such as Ebola virus disease, Salmonellosis and influenza.[7] We know factory farming presents both direct and indirect health challenges to us all. Even if we were only focused on the direct effect on human health we should be worried. These diseases are a direct result of the sicknesses we impose on the animals that live in captivity. Millions of pigs, chickens, cows and increasingly farmed fish not only suffer but live in an environment that makes them ill and diseased. Eating diseased animals is not an idea we care to entertain.

Some imagine dairy cows contently grazing in green fields. It is an image that often features in television advertisements. These ads are designed to make us feel that the cows are happy to share their milk with us. The cheese, milk and ice cream are a cheerful gift willingly given. I remember a company that advertised their milk as coming from ‘contented cows”. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Dairy cows are artificially inseminated, made pregnant, give birth and are milked for up to 10 months, including during their next enforced pregnancy. After being raped and confined their children are then taken away so that their milk is not wasted on the animal it is intended for. Anyone who has lived near a dairy farm knows the sound of a mother cow howling with anguish when her calf is taken away so that we can use her milk as a product, rather than let it serve its natural purpose.  Female calves are kept for future use and males are most likely sent to veal processing or left to die.

One outcome of this unnatural condition of constant milking is mastitis, which is responsible for one in six cow deaths on American dairy farms. The disease is reflected in the quality of the milk through an increase in somatic cells. Somatic cell counts in milk are referred to as abnormal. When a cow has mastitis, up to 90% of the somatic cells in the milk may be neutrophils, the inflammatory cells that form pus.[8]  We don’t want to consider this when we order our cappuccino or spread butter on our toast. And whether the cow was pasture-grazed, lived in a private shed with a heater and listened to classical music, or was the product of a cattle factory.  She is still abused and she is still slaughtered when her usefulness is done.

Since the animals are kept in confined and cramped conditions viral infection is constant. In the USA, roughly 29 million pounds of antibiotics -about 80 percent of the country’s total antibiotics used – are added to animal feed yearly. This contributes to the rise of resistant bacteria, making it harder to treat both animal and human illnesses.[9],[10] Karma!

The conditions in factory farms and feedlots around the world are horror shows of inhumanity. The animals are tortured. They feel the fear, and they feel the pain. We try to persuade ourselves that they are unfeeling, but we know that isn’t true. Our ‘man the hunter’ mythology, speciesism and desire for a tasty treat distorts our finer human qualities.

The issues around meat-eating not only span the health and environmental impacts of the food we eat but permeate our collective psyche. Historically, the ethics of eating animals was usually addressed as part of a philosophical or spiritual inquiry but we seem to place secular morality off to the side. Increasingly we are faced with moral decisions that are not defined in ancient texts or fear of punishment of angry gods. These decisions are driven by a desire to evolve the finer attributes of human potential and all of them lead to the world that balances the needs of humankind with the environment that we have grown out of. The quest to live in balance with the laws of nature is fundamental, regardless of how we imagine those laws to have been created.

[1] Findsus beef lasagne contains up to 100% horsemeat, BBC News. 7 February 2013.

[2] Globalelephants.org

[3] U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “Meat and Meat Products,” Food Outlook, June 2008

[4] The MEAT, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Berlin, Germany, and Friends of the Earth Europe, Brussels, Belgium

[5] J. Otte, D. Roland-Holst et al: Industrial Livestock Production and Global Health Risk, FAO Report, John Hopkins Bloomberg School Of Public Health

[6] The Monster At Our Door, The Global Threat Of Avian Flu, Mike Davis, Holt Paperbacks

[7] Taylor LH, Latham SM, Woolhouse ME (2001). “Risk factors for human disease emergence”. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

[8] National Mastitis Council, “Guidelines on Normal and Abnormal Raw Milk Based on Somatic Cell Counts and Signs of Clinical Mastitis,” 2001.

[9] Natural Resources Defense Council – Facts About Pollution from Livestock Farms

[10] National Mastitis Council